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To combat the pervasive inequity of urban flooding, we must tackle climate change & disrupt racism


Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson delivered the following comments at the CREWS 2020 virtual convening “Changing Climate, Changing the Tide: Racial Equity, Resilience & Revitalization,” held Nov. 12 and Nov. 19, 2020.

Welcome to the 4th annual CREWS Convening, celebrating the work of our Climate Resilient and Equitable Water Systems (CREWS) initiative. I can’t say enough how much I admire and support the efforts of our grantee partners working at the intersection of water, climate resilience and equity.

I’d like to share a bit of background about the initiative for any of our guests who may be new to CREWS. In March of 2016, Kresge launched the CREWS initiative to address the inequities in our nation’s water systems and provide low-income communities and communities of color with an opportunity to be healthy, safe and economically unburdened in the face of urban flooding.

This body of work is led by our Senior Program Officer Jalonne White-Newsome with support from our full Kresge Environment Program, a mighty team led by Managing Director Lois DeBacker and fellow team members Shamar Bibbins, Jessica Boehland, Annelise Huber, Jill Johnson and Kaniqua Welch. Our Environment program works to help cities combat and adapt to climate change with an explicit focus on helping cities implement strategies grounded in racial and economic equity. 

Acknowledgement of land

Before I share my deep admiration for our CREWS grantees and the entire Kresge Environment Program team, I would first like to acknowledge the land we occupy at The Kresge Foundation.

As part of Kresge’s commitment to more firmly center equity in our work and to expand opportunities in America’s cities, the foundation embarked on a journey to recognize the ongoing relationship between Native Americans and the land we occupy.

We have been engaged in an ongoing effort to broaden our understanding of the rich histories and cultures of Indigenous peoples and learn about the unique experiences and challenges they currently face.

The Kresge Foundation is physically situated upon the ancestral and contemporary homelands of the Anishinabek and many other tribal nations since time immemorial. This sacred land tells centuries-old stories of Indigenous peoples, their rich cultures, sophisticated governments, and sustainable ways of living with the land and other beings.

This land also holds stories of unconscionable trauma, including the enslavement of African peoples alongside their Indigenous counterparts. Under the explicit threat of war by the United States government, the Ojibwe, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Wyandot nations were coerced into the 1807 Treaty of Detroit, thereby ceding lands that include the present-day metro Detroit area to the U.S. Michigan Territory. This act of colonization furthered a dehumanizing precedence of extermination and removal that fuels many, if not all, the current inequities faced by Indigenous, Black, and People of Color in our hometown of Detroit, across the US, and globally.

With this understanding, we ground our commitment to equity, not in guilt, shame, or the illusion of separation, rather in the urgent responsibility of solidarity in our efforts to promote human progress.

Inequity in the water sector 

I share this with you because it is directly related to the very important work you are leading with the CREWS initiative. Low-income communities and communities of color across our country are disproportionately vulnerable to urban flooding and extreme rainfall.

These very inequities are due to a complex combination of systemic racism and centuries of intentional inequity caused by institutions, policies and investments that have historically marginalized these very communities, both socially and economically.

We must all acknowledge the “pervasive, enduring, corrosive and invidious impediments to racial equity and racial justice” that have shaped this country since its inception.

Kresge’s core purpose is the expansion of opportunity in America’s cities. True opportunity can never be achieved until institutional, structural and systemic racism are overcome. In recognizing this, Kresge adopted in 2019 a sixth value – equity – to infuse the principles of fairness and justice into every facet of our grantmaking, social investing and operations.

“While the specifics may vary by place – flooding in the Gulf South; water shortages in California; utility shut-offs in Detroit – one thing is true almost everywhere: Pervasive inequity means that water crises hit low-income communities and people of color first and worst.”

These words were written by our long-time partner Laurie Mazur of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project in Kresge’s 2019 Annual Report. I hope you all were able read the report. If you did not, Jalonne can share the link to our online version. It is an insightful document where we acknowledge that any meaningful advancement of equity outside of Kresge’s walls begins with internal transformation and a willingness to be transformed by our partners — a never-ending dialectic of Inside Out & Outside In

In the Annual Report, Laurie shares the story of our “Water Warriors” – a story about this audience here with us today. The community leaders who have come together to share your expertise and build solidarity in the water sector.

Because of your efforts, we know real change is possible — from neighborhoods on the front lines of climate change to the halls of Congress. With the library of resources you’ve built together as the CREWS Community, your expertise in the water sector and your passion to serve…  Together, you are able to shape solutions to water challenges, centering on the needs of communities.

Thank you for your endless work to ensure the world is more equitable and just.